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Calendar Curiosities: Happy Birthday Tycho Brahe

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There is much that can be said about astronomer Tycho Brahe. I will start by saying that he was born on this day in 1546. I will end by saying that he owned a tame elk that purportedly got drunk, fell down some stairs, and died. In the meantime, here is the middle part.

Brahe was born in the year 1546 to Danish nobles Otto Brahe and Beate Bille in Scania, then part of Denmark, now part of modern-day Sweden. At around the age of 2, young Tycho was taken (even kidnapped, in a sense) by his uncle,  Jørgen Thygesen Brahe. According to Tycho, his uncle “without the knowledge of my parents took me away with him while I was in my earliest youth to become a scholar”. This seems to have been a good thing.

On August 21, 1560, after being enthralled by a predicted solar eclipse, Tycho began to study astronomy. After studying abroad, Tycho came back to live with his uncle at Herrevad Abbey. It was here on November 11, 1572 that he witnessed a new star, brighter than Venus, appear in the constellation Cassiopeia. He called this a Stella Nova or New Star (we now know this to have been a supernova, specifically SN1572). Pretty cool, right? Wrong.  It is way cooler than you think. 

Tycho's Supernova seen in infrared and Xray Image courtesy NASA/Calar Alto Observatory

Here’s the thing: Back then, the Ptolemaic worldview still held sway. The Heavens Are Immutable. All the planets move about the Earth in nested, crystalline spheres. Everything beyond is part of the unchanging sphere of stars. Forever. But here is a new star! This was, of course, impossible. It had to be something that was close to Earth. However, Tycho saw that the new star had no daily parallax (the apparent motion of an object in space against the backdrop of stars). This meant that it had to be far away (we now know that SN1572 is over 8000 lightyears away. So yeah, it’s a bit past the Moon). It did not appear to move against the unchanging stars at all. The next year he published a small book that he called De Nova Stella which documented his findings and challenged the orthodoxy of the day.

 Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that, back when he was a student, he got into a duel with another student over something to do with math and had a piece of his nose lopped off. He wore a prosthesis (or, nose-mask) made of precious metal. (see below)

Anyway.

Later he went on to do the travelling astronomer gig (as one does) and visited Germany, Switzerland and Italy. He then settled on the island of Hven and, with support from the King Frederick II of Denmark, established his research institute of Uraniborg and its later addition, Stjerneborg.

Schematic of Tycho Brahe's research center

It was during this time that he made the bulk of his astronomical observations. He had designed and constructed all of the instruments for his observatory, so that his measurements would be more accurate than any who came before him. And they were. It should be noted that the telescope hadn’t even been invented yet. All of the observations made by Tycho were made by the naked-eye. Also, his instruments were beautiful.

Look at this thing!

 

(Sidenote: Go here to see amazing full color plates of Tycho’s instruments)

The precise measurements that Tycho made during his lifetime, later enabled Johannes Kepler to formulate his Laws of Planetary Motion. Kepler’s Laws, in conjunction with the later formulations of Galileo and Newton, finally led to the widespread acceptance of the heliocentric solar system.

 

And, as promised: It is said that Tycho owned a tame elk. This elk purportedly got drunk, fell down some stairs, and died.

One more thing: Here is a paper-golden nose for you to cut out and play astronomer with. If you send me a picture of yourself wearing the nose, I will love you forever.

 

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10 Comments

  1. Heh, the island Hven is just outside the town where I grew up, and I can say that Tycho Brahe did not leave any good legacy behind him there. According to our local history, he treated the peasants lousy and was greedy and brutal. When he died, they tore down his house and his observatory.

    Nowdays there’s a quite cosy museum with a replica of the observatory there. Worth a visit if you’re in that part of Sweden. The island is really nice too.

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